Real-time bathroom stall updates in Taipei

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Ha! I’ve been to my fair share of bathrooms around Asia and some have unique features. But this is the first time I’ve seen live bathroom stall updates in Taipei, Taiwan at the metro station. Before you go to the bathroom, you can check which stalls are free by looking at the ones that have a green light.

How proactive of the potty designer.

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Wishing everyone a happy holiday by baguette Christmas tree

DSC_0814Ha! This is must be one of the tastiest Christmas trees ever. My friend and I saw this outside one of the bakery shops in Taipei and the sign says, “Please do not sample.” So tempting.

To all my friends and family around the world of all faiths, I wish you a wonderful time with your family, friends, good health, fearlessness, and a positive journey towards your dreams.

Happy holidays.

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You know you’re in Asia when . . .

1) You see a Sailor Moon taxi in the middle of a national park
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2) You have assorted dumplings for breakfast

3) You’re at least a head taller than everyone else around you

4) You begin to tell people to get out of your picture shot
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5) You have to squat to do no. 1, no. 2, or no. 1.5

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6) You’re eating Asian snacks every hour and a half

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7) You are constantly doing selfies and documenting everything you eat

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8) You carry around toilet paper in case you have nothing left but a bum hose in the bathroom

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9) You eat anything that has four legs or lives under water

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10) You don’t care how you look wearing a face mask everywhere you go

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11) You eat two plates of noodles and a big bowl of wonton soup in one sitting

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12) You begin reviewing the same pictures at least 20 times in one day

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13) You stay at a Hello Kitty or rubber ducky hotel room instead of the usual hostel

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Where did all the smiles go?

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On the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train, it’s very quiet and people often look serious. The people on public transit reminds me of the atmosphere in Vancouver, Canada. It’s considered rude to speak loud and often the transit signs tell you to put your cell phone on vibrate.

In the nine months I’ve spent in Cambodia and Indonesia, I’ve gotten so used to seeing people with the most genuine smiles wherever I went, whether they were just say hello in passing or if I was visiting a friend.

When I lived at my Khmer (Cambodian) friend’s house, I would feel very rude if I didn’t look people in the eye and smile as I passed them. In Vancouver, Canada where I’m from, people generally look straight ahead and mind their own business. If you try and talk to someone you don’t know on the street, they’ll often think you want something from them or give you a weird look.

In Lombok, Bali and Yogyjakarta in Indonesia, as soon as you sit down at a very local market or hangout and someone notices you’re a foreign visitor, she or he will immediately ask where you’re from and have a conversation with you. It’s friendly and fun. Even if the police tries to find an excuse to fine a foreign visitor, my friend said, “If you don’t smile and talk with them, they are more likely to give you a fine. If you are friendly back, they will often let you go.”

The friendly kids in Lombok island in Indonesia who ran and biked towards us to talk and laugh with us.

The minute I’ve landed in Taipei, I feel the efficiency and speed of the city. There’s a sense of rush with the passengers and people generally don’t smile at each other, say “please” and “thank you.” The staff are quick to process people’s passports and unlike Cambodia and Indonesia, I feel like if I ask simple questions, I’m wasting their time. I do, however, appreciate the efficiency and speed of the service.

Welcome to Taipei.

It’s a different culture and it’s interesting for me to experience these contrasting behaviours in short periods of time. I’m not saying that not greeting each other is necessarily bad, it’s just different, but not my preferred way of interacting with people. Though my friend said the way people drive in parts of the city, they’d rather risk hitting a pedestrian than risk being late for their next destination. But this is the city and like many countries around the world, big cities have a different culture on their own compared to more rural parts or smaller cities.

My friend Sopheak’s wonderful family who welcomed be in their home in Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap. They, like many Cambodians I know, love laughing and joking around.

I’m seeing my best friend in Kaohsiung and she said her Taiwanese friends have been so sweet to offer to lend her their pillows, their bigger rooms and other items when they found out I was visiting. They’ve asked her, “Do you need an extra pillow? Do you want to switch rooms because I have a double bed?” I’m looking forward to experiencing the atmosphere in Kaohsiung soon and how it may differ from Taipei.

So far in all the places I’ve been, I would prefer to be long term in a place where people smile at each other when they pass and say hello.

 

Is it safe to travel as a woman in Southeast Asia?

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Fantastic friends at Golden Temple Villa who always welcome me in their space and make sure I’m comfortable. They were so sweet to give me small birthday gifts after only knowing me for one week. One of the managers said, “My whole team must take care you while you are away from your mommy.”

In the last 9.5 months, I’ve stayed at village homes in the most unvisited parts of Cambodia, shared guesthouses with people I’ve just met after one to three days, shared hostel rooms with unlocked lockers, stayed at a traveler’s home after meeting in another country for two days and the only time I have ever had anything stolen from me and my friend is in my hometown in Vancouver, Canada. Twice. So is it safe to travel as a woman in Southeast Asia? I say yes. East Vancouver . . . depends on the time of day, haha.

Of course my family and friends are always concerned about my safety and I appreciate that. Sometimes, however, other people who have not traveled much fuel the irrational fears of our loved ones. I myself find when I don’t know anything about a place, I default to being a bit afraid and asking the same questions people ask me, “Is this area safe?”

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I met Poly in Bangkok at a bar and she offered to take me around the city the next day. After two days of spending time together, we’ve become good friends and my friend and I will be staying with her when we’re in Bangkok again.

In North America, we’re taught, “Don’t talk to strangers.” While this is good advice for children, there has to be a mentality shift as we get older and have better judgment. When you’re on a global exploration, it is much safer to talk to people, both local people and travelers, than keeping to yourself all the time. Most people are very open and the more connections you make, the more information you are armed with, the better and safer your experience will be.

I know it’s a scary concept to trust when traveling, but some level of trust is necessary to enhance your experience. And your intuition gets better the more you explore. I can usually tell in the first few minutes of meeting someone whom I can spend time with and who I’d prefer to avoid and say, “See ya!”

As much as I love adventure and new experience, I rarely take unmanageable risks like exploring new places alone at night or saying yes to go somewhere with someone where my intuition tells me not to. When I come to a new place, I take time to talk to people and scope out the area first.

I met Lalha through Couch Surfing and she has been an incredible host who introduced me to other great friends in Yoyjakarta, Indonesia.

While I was living in Siem Reap, I would return home no earlier than 10 p.m. almost every night and lived close to the city centre. Still, I take my basic precautions and don’t carry more money than I need for the night, my phone and my keys so I often don’t need to carry a small bag (which a thief can easily grab or pull people off their bicycles if it’s visible).

What is more dangerous than the constant fear that you will be harmed is the belief that most people in the world are bad and everyone is out to get you. It’s fascinating how much people shape their understanding of groups of people or entire countries with such small amounts of information. It’s like they are standing so close to a painting and only see the tiniest fraction of the whole  picture. If they take the time to step back, go explore a bit farther, they will see the beauty and complexity of the bigger picture.

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My wonderful adopted Cambodian family who is always taking care of me and looking out for me while I’m in Cambodia. Buntha, the husband, said, “You are never alone when you are in Cambodia, you always have family here.”

I’ve met many more honest people than dishonest people in the countries I’ve visited, particularly Cambodia. I have accidentally dropped some money in a very economically destitute villages and was surrounded by kids who played with us, and one of the kids picked up the money and gave it to my friend. I wouldn’t have even noticed if they took it and ran away.

One of my friends is a tour guide and he often helps tourists file reports and other administrative work if they lose their passport of encounter other problems. He is not a rich man by any means but he said, “I don’t like to accept tips if something bad already happened to the tourists. If they choose to give me a tip after a tour, that is ok.” I was really impressed. I told him, “It’s ok, if they offer it to you, it’s their way of showing appreciation and they can afford it.” And he replied, “I don’t feel comfortable accepting if something bad already happens to them.”

Between traveling in 10 countries in Europe, Cambodia, Laos,Thailand Indonesia and Taiwan, and the hundreds of interactions with people, the biggest problem I’ve had are annoying tourists. And to be honest, if someone does steal something from me, I understand the conditions in many places I’m visiting that would drive people to steal.

I met Kerry (right) at our shared hostel room in Edu Hostel (highly recommended!) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. We were lucky to have this wonderful young university student accompany us around the city for the day to make sure we are safe.

In the end, as much as it’s crappy to have something stolen from me, I can easily replace the stolen items, I have my health, my friends, job opportunities and family to go back to. Many of the places I’m visiting lack the most basic health care and live on salaries barely enough to survive. So if someone steals something from me once, well, then it’s just a small dot in the big picture.

From my experience so far, most people I’ve met around the world are incredibly generous with the highest levels of hospitality that I’ve ever experienced, and often much more open overall than many people in the West. 99.5% of the time, my experiences have been safe, memorable and eye-opening.

If you don’t believe me, go farther and see the big picture for yourself.

The joys of couch surfing in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

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A beautiful piece on batik, a cloth that is traditionally made using a manual wax-resistant dyeing technique. When artists do their designs, they can only do one colour a day.

My friend in Bali recommended that I visit Yogyakarta in Java, which she described as “A very cool university town.” I had never heard of the city, often referred to as Jogja, and she said going to different islands around Indonesia is like visiting a different country; every island has its own distinct culture, language and history. I was surprised that there are 20 universities in this small city.

Part of me was hesitant to go to a different city alone because I was having such a great time with her and other friends. Every time I go to a new city, sometimes I feel like I have to “restart” and find people to hang out with and so on. But I will only be in the city for a few days then will be meeting up with friends in Taiwan so I won’t be alone for very long.

I had never tried couch surfing before, but I’ve heard nothing but great things about it from friends who have either surfed to find places to stay while they were traveling or being hosts themselves.

If you’re not familiar, couchsurfing.org is website where people can post a profile to offer their homes for travelers and where travelers can “surf” for places to stay. Travelers will message or put in requests to hosts of their destination city. What’s also great about the site is even if you don’t want to stay at someone’s place, I recommend people using it to meet up with local people. They, of course, have the best knowledge of their city.

My fantastic Couch Surfing host and new friend.

Couch surfing seems so much like online dating because you put time to write tailored messages to people you want to host hoping that they will reply you for a first meeting, you need to make a profile that gives you a positive appearance and the people you don’t want send you messages.

I probably messaged at least 15 people and none of them were able to host me because they were either out of town or they already had guests. But one person I messaged named Lalha was great at keeping in touch by text and we met just three days ago to hang out and we became instant friends. Lalha and the wonderful people we met through her are all university students between 18 and 22 years old studying broadcasting and in international relations.

What was really adorable was the first night we were trying to meet up, she didn’t have time to see me so she sent her friend Martin to meet me instead. So we met for a bit and we planned for him to meet me and two of my hostel friends Kerry and Lilliane the next day to see one of the temples.

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Martin and his friend kindly guiding Kerry and I on our bicycles as if they were our personal bodyguards.

Great guides
Martin and his friend were very patient and nice to meet up with us and kept us company for the day. They were very considerate gentlemen the whole time they were with us, which is very impressive, especially compared to many North American students their age who often are not that considerate.

When we wanted to rent bicycles, they told us to wait while Martin used his motto to find out where we could get them. They took us to the bike shop and when one of our friends chose to walk, he automatically thought of her and rented a helmet for her to use for the motto so she wouldn’t have a bike when we returned to our hostel.

Enjoying dinner and live music. Ayumita went up to the band and sang Adelle’s “Rolling in the Deep” beautifully just for us!

As we started to bicycle, Kerry and I felt like a celebrity because Martin and his friend were always protecting us on the roads with their mottos like bodyguards by having one person in the front and one at the back. They drove at our pace and we didn’t feel pressure to go fast. In typical Javanese style, Martin often says, “Take it easy, just relax.”

I thought, like Cambodia, citizens can go to the temples for free anytime. But in Jogja, they pay a small fee, of course much lower than foreigners. I think it should be free for local people. Kerry and I offered to pay their fee for Taman Sari, a site of a former royal garden of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. The site was used for several purposes, including a resting area, a workshop, a meditation area, a defense area, and a hiding place. It was irritating to see that so many tourists have written on the walls and stupid message like “Greg was here” or [X name] loves [partner of the other ignorant tourist].

My ride to Borobudur, much better than a two hour bus ride to the temple.

When it started raining for almost two hours, all of us hung out in a small restaurant by the palace and it was a great chance to get to know the guys more. Martin told us of his dreams of going to Italy and his love of music.

When the rain stopped, the guys followed us back to our guesthouse. Lilliane and I had to pick up our laundry on the bicycles so we did that first while Kerry went back. We decided to rest for a few hours and I told the guys I will meet them later at night to walk around town. Kerry mentioned that she told the boys that she can walk back to the guesthouse by herself and it was just a five minutes to walk, but they kept insisting that they take her back and wait with her until we got back to the lobby. This kind of chivalry is exactly the opposite of the behaviour of many of the men I met in Laos.

New friends

Our last dinner together at Lalha and Langgen’s house :(.

Lalha was so sweet to pick me up on her motto close to my guesthouse and this is the very first time I’ve met her. She came with her friend Ayumita and we went to pick up two couch surfers from Singapore and we all went to a place called Easy Goin’, where they had an awesome live Indonesian band playing acoustic versions of Western songs.

Martin joined us later and it was so easy to be and talk with everyone at dinner. Everyone was really impressed with Ayumita, who sings at one of the hotels in town once a week. I was jokingly asking her to sing us a song and then Lalha told me to request that she sings Adelle. So when I requested it, she just went up to the band without hesitation and she sang Rolling in the Deep very beautifully. As she was singing, I couldn’t help but thinking, “How do these kinds of moments happen so often when I travel and by doing something so simple like messaging a few people on couch surfing.”

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Some of the most adorable girls you will ever meet.

In Vancouver, it’s like pulling teeth to have new people actually follow through to meet up with you and develop a friendship. In places around Asia, you really have to make an effort to not meet people and make friends because so many people are so open and want to get to know you.

After a fabulous performance by Ayumita, we planned for the next full day. Martin was going to give me a ride to the famous Borobudur temples and back (saving me 90,000 Rupiah), we would cook together for dinner, see the wishing trees and town square and have a charcoal coffee. Ambitious.

This was Martin’s first time at the famous Borobudur temple.

An unforgettable last day in Yogyakarta
I’m sure I’ll be offending people by saying this but Borobudur was a bit underwhelming. I admit, I didn’t really understand the significance simply because I still have to read the full story of the temple and went because everyone said it’s the thing to see. But everything we did after the temple are the kinds of moments that I travel for and that are most meaningful to me.

I’m not saying I would skip all temples, but everyone talks about the famous sites and that was the thing that was least memorable of my time in this artsy city. It’s the wonderful young students I spent time with, the incredible level of courtesy they’ve shown to us visitors, and their act of opening their homes openly to someone they just met that I will remember the most.

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Bringing Meesa style curry to Asia.

After Borobudur, Lalha let me rest in her room even when she wasn’t home from school yet, which was very nice of her. Before I rested, I first spoke with her friend and housemate Langgen for a bit. As soon as I walked outside, she said, “Have a seat” and her, Martin and I chatted for a bit. She was very embarrassed when I told her she had a beautiful face and she called me a liar.

After I rested, Lalha and Langgen came into the room and Lalha was getting ready to pray. I was just getting used to being in Muslim communities around Lombok and Java. For 8 months I was so used to seeing and being in pagodas, hearing monks chanting and now I am getting accustomed to passing masjids (mosques for Muslims) and hearing prayer chants. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day from early morning until the evening and I’ve seen prayer rooms on ferries, malls and the airports.

Just trying.

The three of us girls had a conversation that went something like this:

Langgen: Do you have a religion? (In a very curious tone)

Me: No. I consider myself spiritual but I don’t identify with a specific religion. I have friends of all faiths.

Lalha: So you believe in God.

Me: I believe in some kind of higher power, if you want to call it God.

Lalha: Yes that is okay, we all have personal belief. We don’t judge.

Me: Just so you know, if I ask you questions about Islam, it’s just because I’m curious to understand the practice, I’m not judging. I like learning like when my friends invite me to their Buddhist ceremonies, I participate if I’m invited. Do girls in Yogyakarta choose to wear the hijab (veil that Muslim women wear to cover their head) when they are adults or do the parents expect them to wear it?

Langgen: No, women can choose whether they want to wear it or not when they are adults. It is their choice.

Me: It looks really beautiful on the women.

Lalha: Do you want to try it? Just for fun, not for faith.

Me: Sure! If that is okay.

The hijab is meant to be a symbol of modesty and privacy in Islam and there are standards of modesty for men as well. Islam, like any other religion, is practiced by so many people at varying degrees and every religion is practiced by people who are repressively conservative to very liberal. I do know Muslim women Canada who do fully choose to dress modestly when no one is forcing them to and many Westerners are quick to equate the hijab as a sign of repression in every circumstance. Instead of making my own assumptions of this practice, I’d rather ask people from different communities in Vancouver and in Asia.

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A nice hug with Langgen.

On a side note, I don’t know why many Western people associate wearing revealing clothes is necessarily a symbol of a free woman. A Muslim student wrote a great article in our university newspaper a few years ago and made a good point that the pressure for girls to dress and be sexy is a form of repression and not necessarily a symbol of free women. She talked about what the hijab means for her and how she practices her faith. It’s important to listen and understand before we judge.

When I spoke with these girls, they were very open minded and don’t treat me differently because I’m agnostic. It’s so interesting seeing the blank looks on their faces when I tell them I am 28 and single and I’m not sure if I want kids or not. They are socialized to think that being a mother and married is a must. I understand this mentality and I’ve been increasingly fascinated with how differently people interact in their relationships than we do in the West. It seems if they are dating someone, they don’t have to be the ideal person, but someone who has good qualities and they can grow in love, very much like marriage practices in Cambodia.

Final night together

In Vancouver, our friends would cram in a kitchen and cook together almost every week. This is one of my favourite things to do and I love being able to cook with people as I go to different countries. We all made the dishes together and it was wonderful, though I was still nervous that I wouldn’t taste good since I was taking the lead on making curry, omelette and stir fried veggies. But luckily, like in Bali, it turned out to be delicious and I’m glad they all liked it.

After enjoying a meal together, we headed to a very local hangout called Kopi Joss. Kopi Joss is a drink prepared with finely ground coffee, heaping spoonfuls of sugar, and a burning piece of charcoal from the cooking fire. There is ginger and dark coffee flavour, which were both delicious and costs 5,000 rupiahs ($0.50 US) for one coffee.

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Sebastian and Ayumita on their way to town square to make our wishes between the Banyan trees.

It was a great place to hangout and there were so many talented singers and musicians performing on the street, which is normal for the area. I really wish we had more of this kind of vibe in Vancouver, Canada, which has so much potential for a great community environment. The performers were amazing and my friends were nice to give some money to the man who sang to us. I thought, “Only local people would likely know about this place.”

Our friends asked if we wanted to go to Alun-Alun, the town square, another popular hangout for young people where they can enjoy local food, street music and lit up bike-peddled vehicles at night. But our main purpose for going was to make our wish at the trees. People said if you can walk with your eyes closed between the two Banyan trees then your wish will come true.

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Beautiful Lalha waiting for her coffee.

It’s a lot harder to walk in a straight line with your eyes closed than you think. And there is the added challenge of many people who are also blindfolded  trying to walk through the trees at the same time! In my first attempt, I totally thought I was walking straight but I ended up all the way to the right of one of the trees. Then our friend Sebastian suggested three of us hold hands and walked together and we made it.

Afterwards, we cycled a few laps in these bike-peddled contraptions that were covered with lights and played club music, which was quite quirky. It was a really fun city with great people and an awesome way to end the night. We said goodbye to the boys first at their guesthouse and then I drove back with Lalha.

I can’t believe how much we did in just two days and I really wish I stayed in the city longer to hang out with our new friends more. They make us already feel like we are part of their group. Lalha said, “I’m very happy to make new friends, thank you for coming.”

After a good sleep, I finished packing and thankfully had a chance to just chat more with Langgen in the morning. Then when it was time to go, Lalha looked a bit teary and like my Cambodians she said, “Don’t forget me.” And I said, “I could never forget everything you’ve done for me, this has been one of my best weeks in my nine months of being in Asia because of all of you. Thank you very much.”

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Private live music session at Kopi Jos.

Being the ignorant new visitor, I thought I did a decent deal paying 50,000 rupiah ($4.00 US) for the 20-minute taxi ride from the airport into the city. And then I found out I could have just taken the local bus for $0.25 US. The girls were so nice to take me to the bus station and made sure I had the right ticket to get to the airport before we said goodbye.

Everywhere I’ve been in Asia, the times that are most meaningful to me are not the hours that I spend at world-famous temples or even the beautiful landscapes. It is the times that I laugh with my friends, talk with the people who approach us, and the most genuine acts of kindness I see people doing for each other. I would have much more regret if I missed the chance to share a meal with good friends than missing a world famous site.

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Glow bicycles in town square.

 

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Our last moments together peddling around town square while dancing to clubbing music that was installed with the bike.